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The Transactional Practice of Mordo Barkley

The following text completes an agreement of exchange between Emil Dryburgh and Mordo Barkley, for the painting Collection of E. Dryburgh, swapped for Five Hundred Words, 2015.

I’m pretty sure this kind of stuff happens all the time. Nepotism is the oil that greases the art world’s wheels, and everybody likes to be nice to their friends. Admittedly, the transaction is not usually as literal as this, but the principles of reciprocity and mutual gain are the same. It could be said that Mordo Barkley is using me as a hired gun, a means to inflate the brand through the written medium by which art is traditionally assessed. At-least we’re conducting our bargain in broad daylight, better than the smoke and mirrors of many a ‘critical reception’.

I’m not the first to strike a bargain with Barkley. The artist has already bartered transactions with writers, designers, gallerists, and even a constructions manager. While trading art works is in itself not uncommon (McCahon constantly bartered his paintings), the method is rarely used to access the knowledge economy. What is a painting if equated to twenty minutes with a professional photographer? Or five hundred words from an art critic?

I’d heard Barkley was a hard worker, a fast artist. Reading a review published on hashtag500words, Barkley was described as “working in handcrafted multiples, disavowing the culture of connoisseurship attached to painting”. The Writer had discussed Barkley in the context of a toilet show, in which the Artist daily installed paintings in the Pitt Street Public Bathroom. Barkley had to keep pace with the city cleaners, who were routinely removing – and presumably dumping – his paintings.

The paintings themselves are tin-ass Pollocks, works of abstract expressionism manufactured through post-internet rapidity. On each canvas, board, or sheet – really whatever material thing Barkley can find – big squiggles are drawn. The Artist’s routine of depicting a single brush stroke makes me wonder whether he is fetishising the act. There is a movement hot-on-the-trot in New York called Zombie Formalism, the banal, unthinking production of aesthetics estranged from semiotic relationships. Its founder Walter Robinson, described the term as such:

“Formalism” because this art involves a straightforward, reductive essentialist method of making a painting, and “Zombie” because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.”

On the surface of things, Barkley is the perfect incarnation of the slanderous title. However, his economy of mass-production, of trade and barter, describes a market model embracing of the zombie aesthetic, aware of the banal nature of abstraction. Barkley isn’t dealing these innocuous – though well rendered – 50s throw-backs, he’s peddling them, surfing today’s economic tides on the back of an unabating public taste for squiggles.

In the naming of his works Barkley lifted a page from New Zealand’s pre-eminent art villain, Billy Apple. Modelled on Apple’s ‘From the collection…’ series, Barkley titles each of his works with the agreed-upon transaction: Collection of P. Kirby, swapped for assorted paint box, 2014. Collection of R. Weston, swapped for Professional Documentation, 2015. The conceptual terrain of Barkley’s exchange economy is explained in simple terms.

While ‘networking’ is a nauseous-making phrase, association is undeniably the means by which the art world builds value. Association with other artists, dealers, collectors, and yes, even writers, represents a system of accumulative value that if properly cultivated can become an artistic brand. Barkley responds to this mind-bendingly complex equation with the pragmatic attitude of peddling what he has: painting.

Emil Dryburgh

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